MEN'S BASKETBALL: UND downs Portland State, reaches Big Sky title game
OGDEN, Utah — UND is on the brink of one its biggest — if not biggest — men’s basketball wins in program history.
UND was solid from start to finish Friday night in beating Portland State 79-63 in the semifinals of the Big Sky Conference tournament at the Dee Activities Center.
North Dakota will play Weber State tonight at 7 (ESPNU) with a berth in the NCAA tournament on the line. UND is still considered a newcomer to Division I basketball but a win in the title game would advance the program to one of the highest stages in college sports.
With moderate success in the Big Sky last season — the program’s second — and the return of seven seniors from that team, UND entered this year with high expectations. And most of the seniors also were on the ground floor of a program that entered the Division I basketball world.
“It’s been a work in progress,” said UND’s Troy Huff. “We knew from Day 1 that it would be a long road. But I won’t be happy until we get that ring tomorrow night.”
UND led the entire game, jumping out to a 16-8 lead in the first six minutes behind productive play from its inside players, Jaron Nash and Alonzo Traylor.
That lead grew to 34-18 as Aaron Anderson (19 points) and Huff (18) began to take over.
“We got off to a fast start because we carried out our game plan,” said UND coach Brian Jones. “We were dialed in. It came down to defending at a high level and valuing the basketball.”
UND forced Portland State into 18 turnovers, converting them into 21 points.
“They do a great job of turning you over,” said Portland coach Tyler Geving. “They’re fly around out there and they’re pesky.”
UND led 39-25 at the break but neither team managed a spurt during the first few minutes of the second half. But Portland State cut UND’s lead to 62-53 on a three-point play by DeShaun Wiggins with 8:51 to play.
Huff and Anderson — the face of UND basketball for the past two seasons — took over, combining for six straight points and a 68-53 lead. At that juncture, Anderson began to dominate with his ability to drive. He scored a handful of points on drives, maneuvering his way through traffic en route to the rim.
UND also made a defensive switch at that point. To counter Portland State’s athleticism, UND went to a zone defense — a rarity during Jones’ tenure at UND.
“We had a couple of bad possessions when they went to the zone,” said Geving.
UND cruised after the 6-0 run and the defensive switch, gaining a 77-58 lead with four minutes to go.
The game was considered a tossup since the teams split this season, each winning on their home floor.
But Portland had to play from behind early because of Traylor (8 points) and Nash (13). At the half, Traylor, Nash and Chad Calcaterra were a combined 11-for-13.
UND also outrebounded Portland State 41-29 and came up with nine steals.
UND will face its toughest test of the season in tonight’s championship game. Four years ago, it was anyone’s guess where the program would be as it entered Division I basketball.
“All of us seniors were committed to change a program from Division II to Division I,” said Anderson, who has not missed a game during his career. “We have to keep it going.”